Bangladesh: Human rights and our ethnic communities

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    Bangladesh is largely ethnically homogeneous, and its name derives from the Bengali ethno-linguistic group which comprises 98 per cent of the population. The Chittagong Hill Tracts, Sylhet, Mymensing and the districts of North Bengal are home to diverse ethnic communities. There are 54 ethnic communities living with the Bengali-majority people in the country, two-thirds of whom live in the plain lands.

    The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh stipulates in article 27: All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law. Article 28 (1): The state shall not discriminate against any citizens on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth; (2): Women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the state and of public life.

    Despite these provisions in the Constitution, there is no clear safeguard clause meant to ensure the rights and privileges of people belonging to the ethnic communities. Consequently, the government does not always acknowledge certain exceptional problems faced by the ethnic communities, and as a result, their socio-economic situation is worsening day by day.

    While international human rights laws set out obligations for the States to act in certain ways or refrain from certain acts in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups, the ethnic communities of Bangladesh are deprived from enjoying their inherent rights.

    Ignoring strong demands of the ethnic communities and civic groups, the government has denied the constitutional recognition of fundamental rights of indigenous peoples in the 15th amendment of the Constitution in 2011. Following the amendment, indigenous peoples are recognised in Article 23A as tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities. Parliamentary Caucus on Indigenous Peoples proposed to enact a “Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act” and to set up a “National Commission on Indigenous Peoples” under an act to ensure the rights of indigenous communities on their ancestral lands. According to the Caucus, the existing laws are not adequate to ensure the rights of the indigenous peoples.

    Article 11 of the Bangladesh Constitution states: The Republic shall be a democracy in which fundamental human rights and freedoms and respect for the dignity and worth of the citizens shall be guaranteed. The indigenous people, if there be any in the country, deserve recognition. But it is observed that the ethnic minority peoples are not happy with the recognition reflected in article 23A after the 15th amendment in the constitution.

    Ethnic community people suffer from different kinds of problems like land grabbing, domestic violence, cultural-political harassment, violence against women, child abuse, sexual harassment, discrimination of wage labourers and social injustice as well. They are also far from availing free legal aid services from the government due to their ignorance and lack of awareness.

    They find it far more difficult to enjoy their fundamental human rights than the mainstream groups. Ethnic peoples’ laws, values and customs have been eroded by the influence of mainstream culture. The problems of discrimination and human rights abuses on the basis of ethnic origin against the indigenous and tribal peoples have worsened due to the lack of specific legal mechanisms against such discrimination and associated violence.

    According to the recent Human Rights Report on ethnic communities in Bangladesh, the minority population in the country confront severe discrimination and ethnic communities are no exception to this. A total of 122 ethnic women and girls were subjected to sexual and physical violence last year. A figure of 75 cases on violence against ethnic women and girls were documented in 2014. The increased number of sexual and physical violence against ethnic women and girls is an indication of serious deterioration of human rights situation of ethnic population in the country.

    Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) reported that 615 women were victims of attempted rape, rape and gang rape across Bangladesh in 2014. On the other hand, according to Kapaeeng Foundation, similar crimes were committed in 2014 on 55 ethnic women. If aforementioned information of ASK covers only the victims of mainstream population, then the total number of both Bengali and Ethnic victims in 2014 would be 670. Out of the 670 women victims, 8.2 per cent of them are from ethnic communities, who are just 1.8 per cent of country’s total population. On the other hand, out of 670 victims, 91.8 per cent are from the Bengalis, who are the majority in the country with 98.0 per cent of the total population. From this it becomes clear that ethnic women are more targeted in crimes than the mainstream women victims due to their cultural differences.

    Violence against women and girls is one of the weapons used widely to evict ethnic, cultural and religious minorities from their ancestral lands. Hegemonic chauvinism to dominate over and subdue minorities also acts as an inducement to exploit ethnic women sexually and physically. Although a few of the perpetrators were put in the jail following cases filed against them, but soon most of them got released. A culture of impunity along with patriarchy, hegemonic masculinities and gender disparities towards ethnic women bars limited or no access to justice.

    Land issues pose a huge threat to the livelihood and future of ethnic communities. Most ethnic peoples lack official documents which certify ownership of their land and are therefore vulnerable to encroachment and illegal land grabbing. There is a great need for legal assistance to ensure that their land is protected. Most of the indigenous women today are farmers, sharecroppers or wage labourers but they face discrimination in wage.

    An overwhelming majority of ethnic communities live below the poverty line. Environmental degradation has made their lives more difficult. Beside employment problems are prevalent throughout the indigenous communities. Climate change is anticipated to aggravate the intensity and frequency of extreme weather conditions, which will threaten food security, particularly in rural areas where indigenous communities tend to rely heavily on agriculture.

    Ethnic communities, largely poor and illiterate, find it hard to hang on to the court case for long. Land grabbers seize the opportunity to put pressure on the helpless victims to sell their property. When the land grabbers fail in their techniques, they eventually go for harming (even to the extent of killing) their opponents. It has been seen that state actors are also not lagging behind the non-state actors in seizing lands belonging to indigenous peoples.

    The situation of the children and that of education rights in the country have also remained far from satisfactory over the years. The issues of human rights of ethnic youths and children are often overlooked and not much discussed about. Bangladesh recently enacted the Children Act-2013. But this law does not have any specific provisions for ethnic children.

    In this context, a praiseworthy step taken by the government deserves to be mentioned. The government has taken an initiative to conduct a survey on the languages of ethnic communities in Bangladesh to revitalize and preserve the ethnic languages at risk. Ministry of Education through International Mother Language Institute has started to implement this project since early 2014.

    It is also praiseworthy that recently the present government has taken up various projects and programmes in collaboration with national and international development agencies in the light of article 27 of the Constitution and Legal Aid Service Act 2000 (LASA) to speed up the implementation process of legal aid support to the poor, minority and ethnic communities. For supporting these government efforts, UKAID has been implementing an innovative programme named ‘Community Legal Services’ since 2013 through a consortium consisting of Maxwell Stamp-PLC, British Council and Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution for providing greater access to justice and human rights to the poor, marginalised and socially excluded communities. Light House is one of the proud partners to join this effort and make these services available for the poor in northern part of the country.

    Bangladesh has been blessed with its multicultural heritage as well as history, and we need to nourish and preserve these precious belongings for our identity and pride. We need to come forward for establishing a just society where there will be no discriminations and violations against human rights irrespective of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Diversity in culture is the beauty of a country and the government should take care of them. It would be the great-heartedness of our government to accept and recognise the identity of the indigenous people. We should remember that these people also shed their blood for our freedom and independence of the country.

    However, the following recommendations can contribute greatly to improve the overall situation of the ethnic communities in our country in creating an atmosphere of peaceful coexistence:

    1) To form a separate land commission for ethnic communities in the plains to facilitate restoration of their dispossessed lands

    2) To stop communal violence and physical abuse against ethnic women and girls and to conduct judicial inquiries into the communal violence and abuses against them.

    3) To provide constitutional recognition to the indigenous peoples as per international human rights instruments ratified by the Government of Bangladesh.

    4) To conduct investigation into the human rights violations against ethnic communities by the National Human Rights Commission regularly.

    5) To expedite providing free legal aid support for the ethnic communities.

    Nicholas Biswas is a Team Leader of Light House and now managing a UKAID supported Community Legal Services’ programme in Rajshahi division.

    nicbi@live.com

    Source: The Financial Express